by 'Old School' Mark Skillz
I’ll never forget the first time I heard “It’s Yours”, it was playing in a Chuck Chillout mastermix. He was spinning “Here Comes that Beat” by Pumpkin and the All Stars and “2,3 Break” when all of a sudden I heard a tremendous amount of bass coming through my speakers. I thought to myself, “What in the hell is this?” The drum pattern was different from the production of that time. It was much funkier, much grittier than the other jams of that era. When the vocal came on I was totally blown away. The opening lyrics were different from anything before or since. “Commentating, illustrating, description giving adjective expert…” It was like hearing a voice from the beyond and it was describing the future of hip hop to us.
The thing I hated about mix shows at that time was that records weren’t announced so you had no idea who the artist was. I listened to the tape over and over again to see if I could figure out who it was. It wasn’t Kevie Kev of the Fantastic or the AlMighty KG of the Cold Crush. I was lost. Who was this? The only thing I could decipher as far as a name was the line, “T-L-A-R-O-C-K, usually the reason for a very nice day. I came here to represent the ultimate act….” I said to myself who in the hell is TLa Rock? I know who Jazzy Jay is…but who’s TLa Rock? In the ensuing years my questions would be answered by a string of releases like “He’s Incredible”, “Breakin’ Bells”, and “Lyrical King.”
By 1984 the art of rhyming had evolved significantly from its schoolyard roots. Rhymes like, “Dip dip dive so socialize…” were no longer the order of the day. By this time MC’s were using thesaurus dictionaries to make their rhymes sound more intelligent. This new style of rhyming became known as the “big word style” which had its roots in a Harlem based group named the Treacherous 3 which consisted of members Kool Mo Dee, Special K and LA Sunshine. Although the Treacherous 3 were a Harlem based crew, one member of the group Special K was from the Boogie Down Bronx. The origins of the big word style can be traced to the Keaton Brothers: Special K and his older brother TLa Rock.
Both brothers contributions to hip hop are still being felt to this day, for instance Def Jam Recordings first unofficial single was to feature Special K and Jazzy Jay of the Zulu Nation with producer Rick Rubin behind the boards. Due to other commitments, Special K was unable to do the record however; he got his older brother TLa Rock to do the record in his place. What followed was the seminal hip hop classic “It’s Yours”. I recently caught up with the Lyrical King himself to find out what he’s been up to and was pleasantly surprised to find that once a hip hopper always a hip hopper.
MarkSkillz Yo, peace TLa Rock this is indeed an honor to talk to you. I really appreciate you taking the time out to do this interview.
TLaRock Yo, no problem man thanks for the love.
MarkSkillz No doubt. Alright first question…when and where did you first experience hip hop?
TLaRock Oh my goodness…wow…I think it was the late 70’s…’78 ’79 in the Bronx. The West Bronx is where I’m from… I don’t know how familiar you are with New York
MarkSkillz I’m originally from Queens
TlaRock: OK OK then if you know the Bronx I’m from around the Morrison Park area. Now as far as the first time I experienced hip hop that would be Mr. Kool Herc.
MarkSkillz Ok but being from that area were there any other DJ’s you heard before Kool Herc.
TlaRock: Yeah but nobody ever heard of them I refer to Herc cause that’s a name that people know.
MarkSkillz Well yo talk about the unheard of cats.
TLaRock Oh Ok well there was DJ Black Jack he was from around the way I used to go out and hear him. He used to played disco and break beats. I started out as a breakdancer I had the name TLa Rock from that time and then I became DJ/MC TLa Rock. I was in a crew called the Undefeated Four. That was my first crew. We jammed in the Morrison Park and Concourse area.
MarkSkillz Who were some of the members of the crew?
TlaRock: Ok the crew consisted of DJ’s Cooley Breeze and BO Zonk and DJ/MC Amazing Bombay. Cooley Breeze is Percee P’s uncle. My brother Special K used to come around then as well. At that time he was known as KK.
MarkSkillz Oh word?
TlaRock: Oh yeah, actually the Amazing Bombay gave him the name Special K. There were other cats that were down with us like uh…. EZ Dice – now this is the original EZ Dice and Whipper Whip not the one from Fantastic.
MarkSkillz Did these guys rhyme or anything?
TLaRock No they didn’t rhyme or nothin’ they were just down with the crew. We were out there playing breaks and shit. I’ve always been a beat collector. I’m still collecting beats now.
MarkSkillz No shit
TLaRock Yo man we specialized in beats. I had a reputation for beats.
MarkSkillz Word? I thought you were just an MC I didn’t know you were a beat head as well.
TlaRock: Yo I got beats you ain’t ever heard of in your life.
MarkSkillz I don’t know about that I’m pretty much up on my beats yo.
TlaRock: Yo I got some of the rarest beats.
MarkSkillz Now, are we talking compilations or are we talking about originals?
TlaRock: Yo, I’m talking about originals…I ain’t gonna front some of ‘em is comps but most of my stuff is original. If you listen to “It’s Yours” that beat is based on a break beat…I can’t remember the name of it right now but it’s definitely based on a break.
MarkSkillz Ok, then name 5 of your all time favorite breaks. Not including Apache.
TLaRock Man, Apache IS my favorite.
MarkSkillz Yo, man no Apache everybody and their mother knows Apache. (We both are laughing)
TlaRock: Yo man I got stuff that ain’t on them comps
MarkSkillz Ok then name them
TLaRock No (We both are laughing more)
MarkSkillz Yo come on name 5 breaks
TLaRock Alright uh…. Voodoo Non, The Jam, Funky Drummer, Yellow Sunshine, and the original Mexican not that edit that they got out there.
MarkSkillz Ok that’s a nice list
TLaRock Yo, do you have like 2 minutes?
TLaRock Check this out I’m gonna play some of the rarest breaks for you.
(For what turns into 5 minutes or more Tla Rock plays snippets of at least 60 breaks. All the while in between breaks interjecting with, “Now admit it you ain’t never heard these before in your life! I told him I had recognized a lot of them some of them though he got me on, here are a list of some of the breaks he played:
Get Out My Life Woman/ Oneness of JuJu/ Blind Alley/ Hook and Sling/ I Like Funky Music/ Malaak/ Here Comes the Meter Man/ Sally/ Funky Bull/ Fatbackin’ and a whole bunch of others.
TLaRock So yo, when you come down to it I’m just a beat collector. The kids I run with are more intense about it than I am and nobody has ever heard of them.
MarkSkillz Name some of them.
TlaRock: Aight…my man O Love, Tony T, and oh yo this kid named Hess these cats are serious beat diggers man.
MarkSkillz Aight bet.
TLaRock People always ask me why I never sampled on my records? It was because I was scared.
MarkSkillz Well yo you sampled “Brother Green” and that Chuck Brown break for your record “It’s Time to Chill”
TlaRock: Yeah but I could’ve bought deeper breaks in but by the time everyone was sampling it was too late.
MarkSkillz Where did you first start shopping for beats at?
TlaRock: I didn’t shop for beats when I first started. You know where I got my records?
TlaRock: Man I used to hit my parents collection, my uncles, my aunts they had everything.
MarkSkillz Like what? Name something.
TlaRock: Naw see your trying to get up on my titles…man I ain’t gonna be giving away my secrets. (We both are laughing…Tla Rock plays by the crate diggers code)
MarkSkillz Look, look, you can name something that’s already known that won’t hurt you.
TlaRock: I don’t know man there’s a lot of new cats that don’t know (Trying to squeeze titles out of Tla Rock is like trying to milk a chicken…but finally we settle on artists)
TLaRock Ok what artists can I say? The Soul Brothers, The Funky Meters, Mandrill, Barrabas, the Blackbyrds, and Chicago.
MarkSkillz Alright that’s cool. What’s the rarest gem you’ve found?
TlaRock: Nope I ain’t telling that.
MarkSkillz Ok this could be an old disco joint, a jazz record, or an old school hip hop record…for instance on my record list. I’m looking for an original copy of The Younger Generation “We Rap More Mellow”.
TlaRock: Oh…well that would be a record I used to have in my collection and I finally came across it it’s a copy of Spoonin’ Rap. This was before it was Spoonie Gee and the Treacherous Three. This was his first record.
MarkSkillz Yo I know that record…the yellow label right? Sound of New York USA?
TlaRock: Yeah that’s it.
MarkSkillz Yo the first record I ever got was Spoonin’ Rap. I got it for Christmas of 1979. The dumbest trade I ever made in my life was that record for “Super Rhymes Rap”.
TlaRock: Yo please start laughing so that I know that you’re joking.
MarkSkillz I wish I could.
MarkSkillz What MC’s influenced you early on?
TLaRock None of them.
MarkSkillz Yo man come on (We’re both laughing)
TlaRock: Naw man I wanna keep this real, influenced wouldn’t be the right word.
MarkSkillz You know you and your brother are a lot alike. I once asked him who was his top 5 influences and he said, “Special K, Special K, Special K, Special K and Special K.
TLaRock Yeah that sounds like K.
MarkSkillz After about 10 minutes he finally broke down and said Grandmaster Caz was one of the nicest cats to touch the mike.
TLaRock Yeah, well you can wait 10 hours and I’ll still say none of them.
MarkSkillz There has got to be somebody that influenced you.
TLaRock No not really. There was one person that influenced me and he wasn’t a rapper.
MarkSkillz Ok. Who was he?
TLaRock He was a white actor. His name was Danny Kaye. I liked the way he flipped words.
MarkSkillz Ok that’s cool but there had to be somebody that rhymed that influenced you as well.
TLaRock Nope nobody. Now maybe you should ask who motivated me to write and take it seriously.
MarkSkillz Ok…wouldn’t Mele Mel be that person. Or Grandmaster Caz.
TlaRock: No I liked Mel but naw he wasn’t a motivation.
MarkSkillz Ok what about Caz?
TLaRock Naw not really. See Cold Crush did routines they sang songs and whatnot…. me and my boys did hardcore free styling. So if I had to name someone that motivated me to write and stuff it was the Amazing Bombay. He took this more serious than I did at the time. We used to feed off of each other me him and a guy by the name of Eddie Dee. We used to just make up rhymes off the top of our heads. Which brings me to a point that I want you to make sure you put in this piece.
MarkSkillz Ok what’s that?
TlaRock: That is that the meaning of free styling and going off the top of the head have gotten twisted over the years. A lot of my records I did right off the top of my head in like one or two takes. When we said free style back in the day it meant you could be saying rhymes that you wrote last night or last week. But going off the top of the head was making up rhymes on the spot totally improvisational. The way I test kids to see if there going off the top is that I restrict them to only rhyming about stuff in the room.
MarkSkillz Lyrically what influenced you to pioneer the “big word style”?
TLaRock Oh that came straight from the family. K and me had been doing that as far back as the Undefeated. We used vocabulary even in 1979 1980… not to the extent that we would later use it. But we used it.
MarkSkillz Ok bet. My next question is who programmed the beat for “It’s Yours”? I’ve heard both Jazzy Jay and Rick Rubin claim credit for that beat.
TLaRock You know to be honest…I don’t really remember I’ve heard the same things but to my knowledge Rick Rubin, Louie Lou, and one of the Beastie Boys was there when the beat was made in Rick’s dorm room. From what I understand Rick had a lot of the beat programmed and Jay may have come along and added something to it…I don’t really remember. I do know that Louie Lou did the cuts.
MarkSkillz What label was ‘It’s Yours” released on?
TLaRock Party Time/Street Wise was the label but the Def Jam logo was on the record. It was Def Jam’s first unofficial release. As a matter of fact Russell was my manager.
MarkSkillz Were you ever approached about being a Def Jam artist?
TLaRock No, after all the mess that went down with them I didn’t want to have nothing to do with them.
MarkSkillz Ok yo what’s up with this movie I keep hearing about?
TlaRock: It’s gonna be about my life as far as my contributions to hip hop and about the injury I suffered some years back.
MarkSkillz Do you want to talk about those injuries?
TLaRock In 1994 I suffered an injury it was a serious injury. I received major support from an organization called Community Options. It was big news CNN and the New York Times covered it. The movie I’m making is going to cover that.
TlaRock: Antoine Fisher wrote the script.
TlaRock: Yeah word up, um there are a few Hollywood heavy hitters in on this project. Like, Bonnie Timmerman. Matty Silva, Sun Minh she directed that movie “The Others” starring Nicole Kidman. It’s gonna be real live man.
MarkSkillz So what is your function in the movie?
TlaRock: What’s my function? It’s my movie! (We both are laughing)
MarkSkillz Naw naw naw I mean what are you doing? Are you playing yourself, are you producing? I mean you got Antoine Fisher writing the script so what are you doing?
TLaRock Oh ok I’m a consultant. I’ll be contributing stuff to the soundtrack too.
MarkSkillz I’m gonna throw out some names and tell me what you think about them Ok?
TlaRock: Aight shoot…
MarkSkillz Ok…Ultramagnetic MC’s?
TlaRock: Ha! I knew you was gonna ask me about them.
MarkSkillz Hell yeah.
TlaRock: Man, I liked them…they was mad cool.
MarkSkillz Yo they took your style way out there. The first time I heard them was on “Ego Trippin’”. And Kool Keith busted one of the most outrageous most bugged out lines ever. “By controlling every germ by spraying disinfectant, With tranquillized rains to stun competitors.”
TlaRock: Yeah that was pretty bugged out. Ced Gee and I used to hang out he would come over my house…he was mad cool.
MarkSkillz What about Just Ice? When did you first meet him?
TlaRock: Man we were good friends. When I first met him was at Sleeping Bag Records. We used to go up there and get our checks whenever we got together we always drank Long Island Ice Tea…we were real tight.
MarkSkillz What were your favorite Just Ice records?
TlaRock: I liked a lot of his records. Uh… “Put That Record Back On”, “Cold Getting’ Dumb” and “Latoya” were the ones that stand out for me.
MarkSkillz So what’s TlaRock been up to nowadays?
TlaRock: I’m going to be doing a spoken word album with Monty Smith and DJ Sound Machine and contributing stuff to the soundtrack. I’ve also done a project with Omar Santana.
MarkSkillz Where were your favorite places to tour by the way?
TlaRock: I toured the UK at least 3 times a year…I really did my thing overseas that was my major stomping grounds. I was one of the first rappers to play in Sweden. As a matter of fact I lived there for a while with QD 3.
MarkSkillz Ok that sounds good. Yo man I want to thank you for the time I really do appreciate it.
TlaRock: Yo man hit me back anytime…I appreciate the love. Peace
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